James Gandolfini’s Pre-‘Sopranos’ Roles Show He Was A True Scene-Stealer

Two years ago, actor James Gandolfini died of a heart attack while on vacation with his family in Rome. In the aftermath, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie ordered all flags to be flown at half-mast in his honor. The next night, fellow New Jersey native Bruce Springsteen played the “Born to Run” album live in its entirety in tribute to him. His Sopranos co-star Edie Falco, who shared the screen with Gandolfini more times than anyone, once told Vanity Fair in 2012:

“You know, Jim’s a complicated guy. He never knew how good he was. Usually, if you look deep enough when you’re doing a scene with somebody, you can see the actor, and I never saw anybody but Tony. Never.”

Gandolfini’s gruff, formidable stature punctuated by his piercing, soulful expressions allowed him to go from murderous mobster to loving family man and back again. In honor of what would’ve been his 54th birthday, we look at five of his pre-Sopranos roles that showed his effortless ability to steal any scene.

Vinnie – Angie

In this 1994 film by Martha Coolidge, Geena Davis plays Angie, a Brooklyn woman who, after learning she’s pregnant by her well-meaning boyfriend, Vinnie (Gandolfini), decides to uproot her life. While the film focuses on Angie’s personal self-discovery, Gandolfini is able to give his character a disarming charm.

From his excitement over learning about her pregnancy to his frustration when she starts to avoid him, it’s hard not to feel bad for the guy. When Angie does finally break up with him and he asks her, “We’re getting married and you can’t go out with me no more?” you can almost feel his heart break, even as his character does his best to hold it together.

Aside from Gandolfini, the film also features future Sopranos cast members Aida Turturro and Michael Rispoli, playing Angie’s best friend and her husband, respectively.

Bear – Get Shorty

In a comparably light turn, Gandolfini plays Bear, a stuntman-turned-bodyguard, in Barry Sonnenfeld’s big-screen adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel. His performance fits perfectly into the film’s mix of Hollywood satire and mob movie, and the interactions between Bear and Travolta’s mob boss, Chili Palmer, are both funny and cringe-worthy, allowing Gandolfini to show both his comedic chops and a kind of slapstick vulnerability.

Eddie – The Juror

“Look, we’re not animals,” Gandolfini tells Demi Moore, playing Annie, a single mother serving on a jury overseeing a mob trial. As the mob henchman Eddie, he comes off as someone who’s genuinely trying to relate to Annie rather than outright intimidate her. He talks to her about his own daughter, and tries to make the fact that the mob is using her for their own means seem like a simple inconvenience, one that will all soon be over — so long as she cooperates.

His portrayal of Eddie is a sharp contrast to Alec Baldwin’s Mark, the crazy-eyed psychopath better known as “The Teacher,” who takes sadistic pleasure in tormenting Annie and her son (a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt). As “The Teacher” becomes more maniacal, Eddie reveals himself as increasingly compassionate.

Lou – Fallen

In this cop drama with supernatural elements, Denzel Washington stars as Hobbes, a detective who watches a serial killer executed while singing The Rolling Stones’ “Time Is On My Side.” Hobbes soon begins finding victims killed in a similar manner to the killer’s MO. Gandolfini’s role is brief, but he not only breaks his usual typecasting by playing a cop, we get a few seconds of him belting out a rock classic — something we wouldn’t see again until Tony Soprano’s rendition of Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work” in The Sopranos’ third season.

Virgil – True Romance

While he looms large in the background for much of this Quentin Tarantino-scripted, Tony Scott-directed movie, Gandolfini’s unforgettable scene with Patricia Arquette’s Alabama near the movie’s end is where we see the a very early draft of what he would bring to the role of Tony Soprano.

After badly beating her in search of her boyfriend, Gandolfini’s Virgil sits hunched at the edge of the bed while Alabama lays bleeding. As he reminisces about the first guy he killed with a kind of indifferent nostalgia that could easily have come from Tony sitting in Dr. Melfi’s office. After he gets the cocaine he came for, Alabama takes one last desperate stand against him.

“You got a lot of heart, kid. You know that?” he tells her with a real sincerity, before offering her one free shot that — eventually — costs him dearly. It’s tense, charming, scary, and brutal all at once, and Gandolfini was able to do all that in a few short minutes of screen time.